Sydney/Canberra – Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott on Monday began the transition to government as he faced potential hurdles in the upper house Senate to drive through his reform agenda.
The conservative leader, who ended six years of Labor rule on Saturday, arrived in Canberra for meetings to hammer out the way forward, ahead of being sworn in to take over from Kevin Rudd, likely next week.
He has begun forming his front bench, so far confirming that National Party leader Warren Truss will be his deputy and keep his infrastructure portfolio, Julie Bishop will be foreign minister and Joe Hockey will be treasurer.
But while Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition is forecast to enjoy a 32-seat majority in the lower House of Representatives, the makeup of the Senate is not yet clear.
Up to seven minor party candidates could secure seats to hold the balance of power thanks to voter dissatisfaction with the main parties — complicating the new government’s legislative push.
With 39 votes required to get legislation through the 76-seat Senate, Abbott will need to lock in six of these marginal votes — which could include the Australian Sports Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party — to pass bills, on current projections.
Abbott has vowed to quickly scrap corporate pollution and mining profits taxes imposed under Labor and introduce a costly and controversial paid parental leave scheme.
In an open letter Sunday, Abbott said he will immediately implement his border protection plan, under which the Australian Navy will turn back Indonesian fishing boats carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters. The coalition has also proposed that the government buy old fishing boats from Indonesian fishermen to prevent them from falling into the hands of people smugglers.
Labor has dismissed the boat-buying policy as “crazy,” and the idea was sharply criticized Sunday by Mahfudz Siddiq, a senior Indonesian lawmaker, who said it will threaten relations between the two countries.
“His idea is clearly insulting the dignity of Indonesians,” he said. “It showed to us that he does not understand diplomacy.”
But Abbott told Fairfax Radio on Monday he will wait for the dust to settle before forging ahead with his agenda.
“The last thing I want to do is to rush the parliament back for a photo opportunity before the substance of the work is there for it to do,” Abbott said.
“It will be back toward the end of October, early November.”
Abbott is likely to be sworn in next week and revealed Rudd, who is stepping down as Labor leader, made a gracious phone call to concede the election Saturday.
“He rang me and he spoke with warmth,” Abbott said.
After six years of divisive Labor rule, the nation’s newspapers — over which tycoon Rupert Murdoch has a monopoly hold — urged Australians to give the new government a fair go.
“The past six years are a salutary reminder of how easy it is to misjudge the caliber of a prime ministerial candidate until he or she has been tested in office,” wrote The Australian, a Murdoch broadsheet which backed Abbott to win.
“We can be confident, however, that Mr. Abbott possesses abundant reserves of grit and sound judgment, the fundamental requirements for the post.”
Fairfax Media’s Sydney Morning Herald said Abbott must be given “the time and trust he needs to deliver on his promise of stable government for all Australians.”
Its stablemate, The Australian Financial Review, said: “Mr. Abbott made fools of those who depicted him as some sort of unelectable freak.
“His victory speech was mostly gracious and inclusive, in contrast to the rambling 23-minute concession monologue from an oddly beaming Kevin Rudd, who seemed mostly focused on his own vindication.”